How Lexus is taking on GT racing’s big guns in America

The Lexus brand is perhaps more associated with building luxury cars than outright performance machinery, but it’s aiming to change that preconception with its GT racing program in America.

How Lexus is taking on GT racing’s big guns in America

Lexus first entered GT events in 2017, building a GT3 version of its RC F model and running in the GTD class of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. It previously enjoyed a highly fruitful relationship in the series with Chip Ganassi Racing, with its V8 engines powering his Riley-built prototypes – including three Rolex 24 Hours victories spanning 2006-08.

Its fulltime campaigns in GTD over the past two years was with Paul Gentilozzi’s 3GT team, but a change of direction for 2019 led to a new-look attack with the AIM Vasser Sullivan squad.

The season started with a bang, as Townsend Bell, Aaron Telitz, Frankie Montecalvo and Jeff Segal recorded a runner-up finish in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, with the sister car also finishing in the top five.

#12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3, GTD: Frank Montecalvo, Townsend Bell, Aaron Telitz, Jeff Segal, podium

#12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3, GTD: Frank Montecalvo, Townsend Bell, Aaron Telitz, Jeff Segal, podium

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images

“It’s about staying in the game,” said team co-owner Jimmy Vasser. “Even if you go down a lap, you need to keep trying, get that lap back and work your way to the front. That’s just what we did.”

Vasser is a veteran of the racing scene, and enjoyed huge success in open-wheel competition. In 1996, he peaked by winning the PPG IndyCar World Series with Ganassi, before becoming a team owner in 2004 as he looked ahead to when his full-time driving career drew to its natural conclusion in ’06.

With all that experience on hand, Vasser says it doesn’t make too much of a difference when it comes to running the team: “If I’m asked, I’ll pitch in, I don’t want to say ‘do this, do that’ and be overbearing. We’ve got a great driver lineup, I’m here to help – as is Andrew [Bordin, a fellow team co-owner]. He’s a former driver too. But when I was a driver, I didn’t like the old guys telling me what to do either!

“There’s plenty of knowledge and experience in the team, so we’re all in it together.”

#14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3, GTD: Jack Hawksworth (in car) and teammates

#14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3, GTD: Jack Hawksworth (in car) and teammates

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

Vasser knows a good driver when he sees one, and rates Bradford-born Jack Hawksworth highly, having inherited him from 3GT.

“It’s been great working with Jack; we rate him high,” says Vasser. “We watched him come up through Indy Lights to IndyCar, we raced against him there, and he’s been close with TRD since coming to sportscars.

“We’ve known Townsend for a long time, back from IndyCar and winning lots of sportscar races like this, so the biggest task for us, being a pro-am class is finding the right amateurs. And I hate to call them that, because they’re really not, but it’s just the way the class is set up – the golds and silvers, and we’ve got two great ones in Frankie Montecalvo and [Richard] Heistand. Those are the guys we assist the most when it comes to approaching the weekend.”

The Sebring raceday dawned overcast and raining hard, and before the race began we caught up with drivers Bell and Telitz, plus Vasser himself, to get their last-minute thoughts ahead of the 12-hour classic…

Those great results at Daytona gave the team confidence coming into Sebring, but the fearsomely bumpy airport circuit proved too tough to tame. The #12 car finished ninth, while the #14 had a collision early on, and ended up retiring with a technical issue.

“It’s probably the toughest ninth place I’ve ever had!” quipped Bell. “We battled, tried to extract all the performance we could out of our car, but we just didn’t have the pace. We have to figure out how we can be stronger relevant to the opposition, but as a team we didn’t make any mistakes. We executed and did the best we could.

“But this team is configured to win, and we’re going to figure out how to do it.”

#14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3, GTD: Richard Heistand, Jack Hawksworth, Philipp Frommenwiler

#14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3, GTD: Richard Heistand, Jack Hawksworth, Philipp Frommenwiler

Photo by: Scott R LePage / LAT Images

Having won two races in 2018, Lexus is striving for more success with its new team, which is overseen by parent company Toyota's performance arm.

“These first years are always the toughest,” says TRD’s David Wilson of the program. “Having Jimmy, Sulli [James Sullivan], Andrew Bordin, and Ian and Keith Willis on board is nice, we have history with all those guys.

“We have a level of mutual trust and confidence with them, so we can address problems transparently, and not walk on any eggshells. That serves us well. These guys have only had their hardware for 120 days, and they’re doing a great job in spite of that.

“We feel we have a durable, reliable piece, and it’s our job to manage the balance of performance, a never-ending process, and it’s the team’s job to execute the races as well as they can.”

And the aim is for the team to keep executing to add more success to the tally. Then there might be the prospect for the marque to return to the top league – with the new-for-2022 next-gen DPi regulations looking attractive…

#14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3, GTD: Richard Heistand, Jack Hawksworth, Philipp Frommenwiler

#14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3, GTD: Richard Heistand, Jack Hawksworth, Philipp Frommenwiler

Photo by: Scott R LePage / LAT Images

shares
comments
Lexus requires GTD success before potential DPi move

Previous article

Lexus requires GTD success before potential DPi move

Next article

Juncos still seeking IndyCar sponsors and an IMSA driver

Juncos still seeking IndyCar sponsors and an IMSA driver
Load comments

About this article

Series IMSA
Drivers Townsend Bell , Aaron Telitz , Jimmy Vasser
Teams AIM Vasser Sullivan
Author Charles Bradley
Why a Mazda IMSA Prototype title would bring bitter joy Prime

Why a Mazda IMSA Prototype title would bring bitter joy

Can Mazda win this year’s IMSA Prototype championship? Undoubtedly. But it will be the culmination of an achingly hard struggle, after which the brand has decided to quit. David Malsher-Lopez tells the story of a bizarre blend of heartache and positivity.

IMSA
Apr 6, 2021
The GTE dilemma that IMSA has created for the WEC Prime

The GTE dilemma that IMSA has created for the WEC

The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s decision to scrap its GT Le Mans class for 2022 raises the question of whether the FIA World Endurance Championship should phase out GTE cars. But it's a much harder decision than it appears on the surface.

WEC
Feb 3, 2021
Nine things to watch at the 2021 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona Prime

Nine things to watch at the 2021 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona

After a 100-minute sprint race to whet the appetite, the 2021 IMSA SportsCar Championship gets underway properly this weekend. With plenty of significant changes during the winter, here are the key points you need to keep an eye on

IMSA
Jan 29, 2021
Why Magnussen is relishing a fresh start in sportscars Prime

Why Magnussen is relishing a fresh start in sportscars

Having gone over seven years without a race win through spells with McLaren, Renault and Haas, Kevin Magnussen's departure from Formula 1 for IMSA with big-hitters Chip Ganassi Racing could give him what he craves most - a chance of success

IMSA
Jan 29, 2021
Oliver Gavin's Corvette Racing highlights Prime

Oliver Gavin's Corvette Racing highlights

Oliver Gavin has stepped down from the full-time Corvette Racing line-up after a stellar career with the team spanning nearly 20 years. He looks back on a stint that encompassed, among other successes, five Le Mans 24 Hours victories.

Le Mans
Jan 28, 2021
How Tandy joined an exclusive club of endurance legends Prime

How Tandy joined an exclusive club of endurance legends

Victory at last year's Spa 24 Hours meant Nick Tandy had completed the unofficial sextuple crown of the world's six biggest endurance races, becoming the first Briton to do so. Ahead of his fresh start with Corvette Racing, he explains how he did it…

Le Mans
Jan 24, 2021
The 12 greatest Sebring 12 Hours ranked Prime

The 12 greatest Sebring 12 Hours ranked

The 2020 edition of the Florida sportscar classic is finally taking place this weekend, eight months after its traditional date in March. That meant there was plenty of time for Motorsport.com to pour over its previous 67 races and select the best.

IMSA
Nov 11, 2020
Tony Kanaan’s top 10 races – in his own words Prime

Tony Kanaan’s top 10 races – in his own words

The 2004 IndyCar champion and 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan probably hasn’t yet driven his final IndyCar race, but we still asked him for the 10 most significant races of his career. He explained his choices to David Malsher-Lopez.

IndyCar
Sep 7, 2020